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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Measha Brueggergosman: Born to Sing, Born to Live

By Joseph So on March 27, 2019

When Measha Brueggergosman’s book, Something Is Always On Fire, came out in the fall of 2017, she had barely turned forty, a very tender age for anyone to pen a memoir. But then the soprano isn’t just anyone.  Simply put, Brueggergosman has cramped a lot of living — and singing — in those forty years.

When I mentioned this to her in our recent chat, it elicited a burst of laughter.  The soprano has been singing professionally half her life, in an unusual career that crosses many artistic boundaries. Not too many can claim to have sung the Olympic Hymn to open the Winter Games, or to have received an honourary doctorate before hitting the big “four-o”.

But among all her triumphs, there have also been hard times.  She almost died from a dissecting aorta ten years ago, requiring emergency surgery on the day of her scheduled Four Last Songs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She also suffered the heartbreak of losing the twins she was carrying, and a gut-wrenching divorce from her high school sweetheart, Markus Brügger.

Through it all, Brueggergosman was nothing if not resilient, sustained by her strong Christian faith and an innate sense of hope. Born Measha Gosman in Fredericton, New Brunswick to parents Ann and Sterling Gosman, descendants of African American loyalists on her father’s side, who escaped to Nova Scotia, the soprano grew up in a loving Christian home and sang in the choir of her local Baptist church. She took singing lessons as a teenager, and later at the University of Toronto with famed teacher Mary Morrison.

Her career trajectory has been brilliantly atypical. At twenty, she already turned heads in creating the title role of Beatrice Chancy, a new Canadian opera by James Rolfe, based on the story of a young slave girl who kills her abusive father who is also her master. After that big break, she moved to Germany to study with Canadian soprano Edith Wiens, went on to win a slew of competitions, and embarked on a parallel career in both classical music and pop culture.

In 2015, Brueggergosman appeared in the documentary television series Songs of Freedom, detailing her journey of discovery regarding her African heritage. These songs have since been released as a CD. Through it all, she has maintained her classical music career, singing in concerts and opera, as Jenny in Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Giulietta in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking. Her upcoming Elettra in Idomeneo is her first opera in Toronto in eight years, last as Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito.

Having followed her career from the very beginning, it’s clear that her life, with all its triumphs and tragedies, help inform what she does onstage. With her in town for rehearsals, I took the opportunity to reconnect with her.  I’ve interviewed her several times, although not in recent years. There’s a lot of catching up to do. We met in a restaurant near the rehearsal studio at the Elgin Theatre:

A belated congratulations on the publication of your book!  I enjoyed reading it…it’s obviously written from the heart.

It’s the only way I write. I’ve written enough that people come to me for “my voice.”  Writing it has been a really beautiful process. My editor Jennifer says the more specific it is, the more universal it will be, even when I thought at the time – ‘this isn’t going to be relevant…it isn’t going to be helpful. It’s shameful or embarrassing…I couldn’t possibly share that.’

Showing your vulnerabilities in your book makes you more human, don’t you think?

And it renders other people freer to be human too. That’s what I want in the book.  But in the thick of it, in the book tour, when you are forced to go back and relive all those things…

Let’s talk about your opera career. You know, I first heard you as Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites, the student production at U of T.

U of T!?  Oh my goodness… Just got a letter from the alumni association asking if I want to come to the reunion, which I realize was 20 years ago when I graduated.

Now that you are revisiting Elettra eleven years later — your last was April 2007 — how does it feel?

I hadn’t done her in between – I’ve done the arias but not the role. Coming back to her now, it’s easier for me to play the fact she’s been betrayed, rejected, tossed aside and overlooked. I’ve experienced all those things since then. I think there’s a depth to your adulthood that comes with having kids [Her sons Shepherd Peter and Sterling Markus]. It helps me understand what a real loss would be. You know it’s one thing to go through a divorce, it’s another thing to contemplate the safety and health of your children. They are both kind of terrifying, but for different reasons.

In other words, you’re saying now that you’ve had eleven more years of living, you’re bringing more of yourself to your role?

You know, the dissecting aorta, the loss of the twins, the birth of two children, my divorce, all of this is in the book. But I feel I am winning. I could cry for the joy of it that I’m still here. It’s with that commitment to joy and peace that’s in me that I can move fearlessly forward.

I remember when you had the surgery.  I was expecting Four Last Songs that evening at the TSO! Monica Whicher filled in for you.

God bless her! I’ve only had to cancel twice in my career. One was Simon Rattle for Porgy and Bess with the Berlin Philharmonic, because my newborn, Shepherd Peter’s passport didn’t go through. The other time was Four Last Songs. You see God’s hand moving, and he’s making the way for you even when you struggle to stay energetic and healthy, in the centre of your experience. It’s easy to be tossed to and fro by the winds of ___________ (insert your distraction). I know this too will pass, as the only constant is change.

I mentioned in my review of your book that you’ve cramped a lot of living into forty years! Not too many people would have enough to write a memoir at age forty…

[Big laughs] I wrote it when I was 39, praying that I’d get there, knowing my life up until that point was incredibly full, sometimes tragic, and super triumphant. When the dissecting aorta came, I thought – ‘if this is it, nobody can say I was lazy!’ There are worse things than dying young, like not using the time you have. That, and apathy are worse than dying young.  In the hospital, I knew I had lived as much as anyone could possibly live. People think I’m confident, but I’m just confident in Jesus – it’s my choice to put that much stock in how He moves in my life. It makes me more courageous and loving.

Tell me — what is it like having a career and raising children, as a single mom?

Here they are! [She shows me the photo of her two boys on her phone] They just love each other. The point is to teach them what they have in each other. I’m trying to instill in them the idea that their lives inform each other, and they’re going to be the longest witnesses of each other’s lives.

Are they with you all the time?

They are with me most of the time. When they are not with me, they go to Markus, whom you’ve met…

Yes, I remember! I went to your recital in Wigmore Hall in London. He looked the wrong way crossing the street and got hit by a car!     

He went to make photocopies for my pianist, looked the wrong way and got hit. I’ll never forget it — that feeling when you heart sinks and you think you’re going to throw up?  Like the moment when I found out when my twins weren’t going to survive, it’s that kind of feeling in the pit of your stomach, when everything pours out of you. But you can’t submit to the shock, not when so much is at stake [the Wigmore Hall recital]. I sang it like my life depended on it, while my husband was in the hospital. My life has made my job that much easier. It’s never going to be as hard as getting divorced, as losing the babies. In the grand scope of what life batters you with, I’m so thrilled to have this job. There’s an immediacy in the joy you experience in classical music…it’s right there. If you can divorce yourself, pun intended, from getting bogged down in the minutiae of how difficult it is, you’ll realize that you have the best job in the world.

You must be incredibly busy, what with the career and motherhood.

You know what I’ve learned from all this? Being busy is probably not what you should focus on. You should focus on going from task to task. Yes, these tasks never end and some of them you don’t want to do, but I’ve watched him [Markus, her ex-husband] emotionlessly go from task to task, see it accomplished, even if you heart is not in it. A lot of parenting is that – being present, answering questions that come fast and furious sometimes!

Where do you call home these days?

Deep, rural Nova Scotia. No distractions, barely an internet connection. For all the joy that comes with this job and how much sensory overload that comes with it, when we go to Falmouth, I live on my own lake; I don’t even answer the phone, the number is unlisted. I don’t feel the pressure to be more involved.

I noticed that you have a Carnegie date coming up. Michael Tilson Thomas wrote a piece for you?

I was with him throughout much of the process of his writing it for me. The text of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind is by Carl Sandburg. MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] started writing it in the ‘60s. He was looking for a singer who can intersect all the styles he grew up with — jazz, Klezmer, R&B, opera, combining the lyricism of Debussy with the improvisations of James Brown. MTT dedicated it to Stravinsky and James Brown. We took it to LA Phil and to Philadelphia, and we workshopped it with the New World Symphony down in Miami. MTT has composed hundreds of songs, but this is the first vocal piece that he has let see the light of day.  He used to play this piece at parties, and twenty-seven minutes later!  It’s a tour-de-force and not easy, but I love it so much!

I know you’re singing Giulietta these days, but didn’t you used to sing Antonia [in Les contes d’Hoffmann]?

Yes, I used to sing all three [Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta]!  Gerard Mortier, God rest his soul, offered me all three in Madrid. I didn’t want to live in a city like Madrid, chained to my apartment, living like a nun, just because I was singing all three parts! The glory of singing all three love interests was not enough to have me sacrificing my time in Madrid…will I still be able to party? [laughs] Olympia was easy enough to let go – there are coloratura specialists out there who sing this high, fast stuff, a specialization I have zero interest in!

A final question — what advice would you give to a young artist starting out, wanting a career?

There’s nothing that replaces a good technique; and knowing as many languages as possible. Do not get distracted by the repertoire you want to sing; focus on knowing your own body, your own voice, and creating your own compass. Get informed by people at least fifteen years older than you; not colleagues your age. You know, if you don’t have a spiritual life, develop one — singers more than anyone else need an active and healthy inner life.

On that note, thank you, and toi toi toi for opening night!

++++

Measha Brueggergosman performs in Toronto at Opera Atelier’s Idomeneo April 4 to April 13, 2019, at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Full Details, here

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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